By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly

Every summer we hear warnings that West Nile virus has popped up in our area. West Nile virus, first discovered in 1937 in Africa, is suspected to have entered the United States around 1999. The disease is passed from an infected mosquito to humans, but not everyone bitten by an infected mosquito will get the virus. West Nile is not passed from human to human and it is spread by a specific species of mosquito, the Culex.

The severity of West Nile virus depends on who acquires it. A child with a normal immune system may get mild ‘flu-like’ symptoms and not feel ill, while people over age 50 and those with weakened immune systems due to HIV, cancer or organ transplants may be affected more seriously. There is no specific treatment for West Nile virus. A viral infection, antibiotics will not work.

Though the disease can be severe, it is important to note that the chance of becoming severely ill from the virus is rare. Less than 1 percent of all mosquitoes in any area where West Nile has been found are actually infected with the disease, and less than 1 percent of all people who are bitten by mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus will become seriously ill. West Nile has not been detected in ticks or transmitted to humans by any insect other than mosquitoes.

Symptoms of West Nile virus include fever, headache, stiff neck and back, muscle aches, fatigue, joint pain, swollen glands and rashes. Though rare, West Nile virus can cause encephalitis, which is an inflammation of the brain that can affect the entire nervous system. Symptoms of West Nile may take five to 15 days to appear.

Here are tips on how you can protect your family from West Nile virus:

·        Wear insect repellent that contains DEET, lemon eucalyptus or picaridin. Spray clothes as well as exposed skin, with the exception of your child’s hands, as he may touch his eyes or mouth. Choose a repellent that contains no more than 10-30 percent DEET for children, because higher concentrations of DEET can be absorbed through the skin and may be toxic. Read all directions on any repellent before applying.

·        Wear socks, long-sleeved shirts and pants when playing outside, if possible.

·        Repair damaged or broken screens on windows and doors.

·        Avoid staying outdoors for long periods in the early morning or early evening, because mosquitoes are most active at those times.

·        Remove all standing water around your home and yard, such as in gutters, wading pools, buckets and potted plants, because mosquitoes lay their eggs in water. Change water in your pet dishes and birdbaths regularly.

·        If you find a dead bird in your area, do not touch it with your bare hands (and make sure that you tell your child not to touch it). Call your local health department immediately.

If your child shows symptoms of West Nile virus, visit your pediatrician.
 

Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children’s special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email jskoloen@utmb.edu.